Last month millions of savvy consumers signed up to receive $40 government coupons to help pay for analog-to-digital television conversion boxes, devices that will be needed to keep many old TV sets working when the nation’s full-power broadcasters go all digital in February 2009.

Now it appears all those on-the-ball consumers will actually be penalized for their on-the-ballness.

The problem is that Congress included a 90-day expiration date on the converter box coupons in the 2005 legislation that created the program. That 90-day clock starts ticking when the coupons are actually mailed out by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce that is overseeing the coupon program.

NTIA planned to begin mailing out the first coupons this week, meaning they will expire in late May. That means millions of consumers will be denied the opportunity to use their coupons to buy the only sub-$40 converter box expected to be offered by electronic retailers.

The converter box we are talking about is the TR-40 from Echostar, the big satellite television company that operates Dish Network. Echostar made a big splash when it recently announced it would be selling the TR-40 for $39.95, meaning it would essentially be free for consumers using the government coupon.

So far, all of the converter boxes hitting the market are selling for at least $50, with most costing more than that.

Echostar originally said it planned to have the TR-40 units available in limited quantities by the middle of next month, and in “unlimited quantities” by June. But this week Echostar said the boxes won’t be available at all – even in limited quantities – until June or July. At this point it is anybody’s guess when there will be enough of the TR-40 units available to satisfy what is very likely to be overwhelming consumer demand.

We’ve never really understood why Congress put a 90-day expiration date on the coupons, but it did. Unfortunately, getting rid of it now will quite literally require an act of Congress.

Although Congress nearly always moves at glacial speed, legislators have sometimes shown that – when properly motivated – they can move very quickly to fix problems like these.

And the government clearly has an obligation to address this mess in some manner: It’s Congress that mandated the upcoming switch to all-digital broadcasting, after all. It was a highly responsible act when Congress appropriated $1.5 billion to pay for the converter box coupon program a couple of years. It would be equally irresponsible not to act now to make sure consumers can take the fullest advantage of those coupons in securing a converter box.

The specter of millions of angry consumers being forced to pay their hard-earned money to buy more expensive converter boxes because of an arbitrary expiration date on these government coupons should scare the living daylights out of any legislator paying attention. We hope they are, and quickly act pro-actively to fix this mess.

Another possible solution might be for retailers to try and work out some sort of raincheck process with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, so that even expired coupons could be used to purchase the “free” converter boxes once they hit the market in adequate numbers.

Comcast Pays to Pack the House at FCC Net Neutrality Hearing in Boston

Cable giant Comcast made sure it had the best audience money could buy for an FCC hearing in Boston this week examining the company’s highly dubious practice of secretly blocking and delaying certain content on its Internet network.

We blogged about the Comcast situation in depth last week, which you can read by clicking here.

Responding to press calls, Comcast officials confirmed on Tuesday the company had hired people off the street to hold seats for Comcast employees or fill the seats themselves during the hearing.

Our friends over at www.savetheinternet.com have posted a great video on the whole sordid tale, including a recording of one of the seat warmers, saying he was just there because he was getting paid and he had no idea what the hearing was about.

But wait, it gets better.

Comcast employees and the paid seat sitters wore yellow highlighters in their lapels, apparently so they could identify each other. Not all of the highlighter brigade was there to nap, however. Many cheered wildly when a Comcast vice president stepped up to the podium to testify, cheering and whooping.

The Consumerist also has an amazing video of the highlighter-adorned seat warmers and Comcast commandos in action.

This might all be written off as simply bizarre behavior by a deservedly paranoid corporation were it not for the fact that all those paid fannies and Comcast employees weren’t firmly planted in a tightly limited number of seats available at the “public” hearing. Their presence meant many citizens who were truly interested in the hearing were turned away.

Tim Karr of www.savetheinternet.com summed it all up nicely.

“First, Comcast was caught blocking the Internet. Now it has been caught blocking the public from the debate. The only people cheering Comcast are those paid to do so. We didn’t have to pay anyone to attend the hearing. Comcast’s actions raise red flags for most people — with good reason. Clearly, Comcast will resort to just about any underhanded tactic to stack the decks in its favor. And yet Comcast still expects us to trust them with the future of the Internet?”